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A Turning Point for the Climate or a Disaster? Michael Brune vs. George Monbiot on the Paris Accord

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In what’s been described as a historic turning point, nearly 200 nations agreed in Paris Saturday to a global accord to rein in rising greenhouse gas emissions blamed for warming the planet. The accord was reached at the conclusion of the two-week U.N. climate change conference, known as COP21. Under the deal, nations will make voluntary commitments to begin cutting emissions. In addition, the deal provides billions more dollars to help poor nations cope with the transition to a greener economy powered by renewable energy. “What we saw in the last two weeks was that every country around the world agreed we have to do much, much more to fight climate change effectively, and to begin to set up a dialogue and mechanism for rich countries to aid the poor countries, and to make room for continuous ambition moving forward,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club and author of “Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal.” But climate justice activists disagree on how effective the agreement will be in rolling back the effects of climate change. “What I see is an agreement with no timetables, no targets, with vague, wild aspirations,” says British journalist and author George Monbiot, columnist with The Guardian and author of the 2006 book, “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.” “I see a lot of backslapping, a lot of self-congratulation, and I see very little in terms of the actual substance that is required to avert climate breakdown.” We speak with both Brune and Monbiot about the agreement.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In what’s being described as an historic turning point, nearly 200 nations agreed in Paris Saturday to a global accord to rein in rising greenhouse gas emissions blamed for warming the planet. Under the deal, nations will make voluntary commitments to begin cutting emissions. In addition, the deal provides billions more dollars to help poor nations cope with the transition to a greener economy powered by renewable energy. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced consensus on the deal had been reached.

LAURENT FABIUS: [translated] I now invite the COP to adopt the draft decision entitled Paris Agreement, which features in the document. I’m looking around the room. I see the reaction is positive. I don’t hear any objection. The Paris Agreement for the climate is accepted.

AMY GOODMAN: The Paris Agreement was reached at the conclusion of the two-week U.N. climate change summit in Paris, known as COP21. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the deal.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: We are going to have, for the first time, universal and robust and ambitious climate change agreement. This is the [inaudible] beginning—decisive turning point in our common efforts to make our lives for peoples sustainable and prosperous, as well as a healthy planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite the Paris Agreement, many scientists and environmental groups say nations need to be far more ambitious to prevent global temperatures from rising. Current emission reduction pledges put the world on pace to warm by as much as 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3.5 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels. The globe’s temperature has already risen by nearly 1 degree Celsius, and the impact of global warming has been felt across the globe. 2015 is on pace to be world’s hottest year on record. The United States has also been criticized for failing to take more responsibility for causing the climate crisis as the world’s largest historic emitter. Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said climate activists will continue to mobilize to push nations to do more to address the climate crisis.

KUMI NAIDOO: This is neither a moment for triumphalism or for despair. We cannot be triumphalistic of the deal that is done here when tens of thousands of lives have been lost already as a result of climate impacts and where, furthermore, tens of thousands of lives are on the precipice of survival—indigenous peoples, people in low-lying states and so on. Neither should it be a message of despair for us in the climate movement. We have won the core argument that climate crisis is serious, it requires urgent action. And we will continue to mobilize from tomorrow to make sure that the end of the fossil fuel era starts today and that we see the transition to 100 percent renewable energy future by no later than 2050.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Paris Agreement, we’re joined by two guests. George Monbiot is a British journalist and author, a columnist with The Guardian newspaper, author of the 2006 book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. His latest piece is headlined “Grand promises of Paris climate deal undermined by squalid retrenchments.” He’s joining us from London. And in San Francisco, we’re joined by Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. His book, Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal.

Michael, you’ve just flown in from Paris, as we have. You were there for the final moments of this Paris Agreement. Your assessment of what close to 200 countries have agreed on?

MICHAEL BRUNE: We do think it’s a turning point. What we saw is just about every country in the world made a commitment to either cut their own carbon or to peak the growth in their emissions. And there was also an explicit acknowledgment that what was committed to is not nearly enough, and so there was a process that was established to take stock of the progress that’s being made and then to commit to continuous reductions in the years ahead. What we saw in the last two weeks was that every country around the world agreed that we have to do much, much more to fight climate change effectively, and to begin to set up a dialogue and a mechanism for rich countries to aid the poor countries, and to make room for continuous ambition moving forward. So, it’s a good start, and there’s, of course, a very long way to go.

AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, your assessment?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, I wish I could be as optimistic as Michael, but what I see is an agreement with no timetables, no targets, with vague, wild aspirations. I mean, it’s almost as if it’s now safe to adopt 1.5 degrees centigrade as their aspirational target now that it is pretty well impossible to reach. I see a lot of backslapping, a lot of self-congratulation, and I see very little in terms of the actual substance that is required to avert climate breakdown. That’s what we’re facing. We’re facing an existential crisis for humankind. And the response by the world’s leaders has been anything but commensurate with that crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you feel needed to be done, George?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, we needed a clear set of binding commitments based around percentage cuts by certain dates. Those were initially in the text, but they got stripped out as the process went along. And instead, we’ve got a phrase, “as soon as possible,” which could mean anything, or it could mean nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Yeah, well, that’s not accurate. You know, first, the targets that were established—first, there are targets. They were never in the text. What we have is 187 countries—

GEORGE MONBIOT: They were in the text. They were in the text until a week ago.

MICHAEL BRUNE: —have made commitments to cut their carbon. We have—we have India, that has committed to install 175 gigawatts of power, clean energy, over the next decade. That’s equivalent to about half of the U.S. coal fleet in the United States. African nations have committed to install about double that. China has committed to install as much solar and as much wind as we have coal, natural gas and nuclear power combined, by 2030.

The best news that I think we saw from COP is that every country has realized this is a problem, we need to do a lot more. But even better is that the climate movement, that helped to secure all of these victories, is showing up to work today. And we’re not going to let up until we get an economy, a just society, that is powered by 100 percent clean energy.

There’s a lot of weaknesses in this agreement. If you want to point out what this agreement doesn’t do, get in line. You know, there’s a lot of opportunities to strengthen this agreement. And I agree with George, we have fallen short of what is needed. But what is also true is that our movement has never been more powerful. We have never had this much momentum turning away from fossil fuels, embracing clean energy. And now we need to finish the job.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the role the U.S. played, but first we’re going to go to break. Our guests are Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club—his book, Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal—and we’re speaking with George Monbiot, British journalist and author. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Climate Countdown. We are just back from the Paris U.N. climate summit. On Saturday, President Obama hailed the international agreement aimed at curbing climate change.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Moreover, this agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is firmly committed to a low-carbon future, and that has the potential to unleash investment and innovation in clean energy at a scale we have never seen before. The targets we’ve set are bold. And by empowering businesses, scientists, engineers, workers and the private sector, investors, to work together, this agreement represents the best chance we’ve had to save the one planet that we’ve got. So I believe this moment can be a turning point for the world. We’ve shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama addressing the Paris Agreement that was reached late Saturday. Word was that part of the hours of delay on Saturday was that the U.S. wanted to make some final changes to the text. There’s been a great deal of discussion that President Obama wanted to ensure that this wasn’t mandatory, because he said that would mean a treaty, and a treaty he would not be able to get through Congress.

Our guests are George Monbiot, British journalist—his latest piece, “Grand promises of Paris climate deal undermined by squalid retrenchments”—and Michael Brune, just back from Le Bourget, where the Paris accord was hammered out. He’s executive director of the Sierra Club.

George Monbiot, the role of the United States, historically the largest greenhouse gas emitter?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, yes, and one of the most reluctant nations historically to cut its emissions, the Senate blocking all progress again and again. We see at the moment the most active president in this respect and, in the foreseeable future, the most active one we’re likely to have. And part of my pessimism—and, you know, I would love to embrace Michael’s optimistic vision—hinges on the fact that whoever the successor to President Obama might be—whether it’s, for instance, Hillary Clinton or, heaven forfend, one of her Republican rivals—we’re unlikely to get such an engaged and active president pushing this agenda. And if this is the best we can do under the best president there’s been where this issue is concerned, well, I hate to think what comes next.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, if you could respond, and also to George Monbiot’s comment in his Guardian piece? He said, “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, first, I love George, a fantastic writer and a great activist. So, George, thanks for all your work.

I guess what I would say is that embracing an optimistic vision isn’t an armchair exercise. We have to work for it, just like we had to work for every victory that the climate movement has won over the past couple years. What we know is that in the United States and increasingly in countries around the world, clean energy is now often cheaper than coal, cheaper than gas, cheaper than nuclear power, sometimes cheaper than oil. And what that means is that the solutions to climate change are more affordable than the problem, the fossil fuels that have caused this problem.

So, what we now need to do—if you’re a climate activist, and if you looked at this agreement and you felt a little bit of hope, that’s good. If you felt that this agreement doesn’t go far enough, that’s also good. If you’re living near a coal plant, you need to work now to shut it down and to make sure that it’s replaced by clean energy. If you have fracking in your backyard, we need to work together to make sure that clean energy is installed instead, because it will do a much better job of creating jobs. If you’re fighting a coal export terminal or an LNG export terminal, or if you’re fighting the extraction of fossil fuels almost anywhere, then we need to work together to stop exporting defeatism and dirty fuels, but start exporting optimism and clean energy.

What is true is that we have to make sure that we are electing leaders who are more ambitious than our current ones. And sometimes it can be depressing looking at the crop of candidates that we have, in the U.S. and around the world. But what is also true is that our climate movement is resurgent. We are ascendant. And we are projecting a more optimistic and irresistible message for the public, which is that we can build an economy that is powered by clean energy. We don’t need dirty fuels in order to make a just society that works for everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, loss and damage, explain what that means. That was one of the final sticking points of the United States, the issue of countries that are dealing with the historical effects of climate change—their countries could be submerged—getting actual compensation for what’s happened. The U.S. said they were only willing to put the term “loss and damage” into the text if it was also said that the U.S. and other Western countries would not be liable for that loss and damage.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes, it’s saddening to see this failure to take responsibility and this failure to accept liability. So, we in the rich nations—and it’s not just the U.S., it’s my nation here in the U.K., as well, and many others—have effectively dumped our external costs on the people of the rest of the world, and, of course, on future generations, and then we wash our hands of it. We say, “Well, we’ll give you a little bit of aid to help you to adapt, to help you to switch technologies and stuff, but we’re not going to accept anything resembling legal liability for the consequences of what we’ve done.” And to me, that offends the basic principles of justice.

And to broaden this out somewhat, I don’t disagree with anything that Michael just said. I think he’s absolutely right, and we’ve got to push this as hard as we can. At the same time, we have to be realistic about what has just been agreed. And there are several really fundamental, thumping flaws in it. The lack of liability, the lack of responsibility is one of them. But we’re looking at commitments that nations have made which commit us to a minimum of 2.7 degrees centigrade—I’m sorry, I don’t do Fahrenheit—and a maximum of about 3.5 degrees. Even if those promises are met, any part of that range of temperature is catastrophic for many of the world’s people, especially the poorest and the most vulnerable people, who are the people we should be most concerned about.

At the same time, there’s all this wonderful investment taking place in alternative energy, which is fantastic, and renewables and the rest of it, which I strongly support, but there is not the commitment to leave fossil fuels in the ground. And simply developing new renewables, new technologies, while continuing to use the old ones, is like going on a diet and say, “Well, OK, I might have eaten six Big Macs and an entire Black Forest gâteau today, but I also had a salad.” You’ve got to stop eating the Big Macs and stop eating the Black Forest gâteau, if you’re going to lose that weight. And it’s just the same here with climate change. The key task, as Michael alluded to, is to leave the fossil fuels in the ground. And what we do after that, in switching to alternatives technologies, that, of course, is also crucial, but it’s vitiated and undermined unless we are retiring those fossil fuels. And unfortunately, that didn’t even arise as an issue during the climate talks.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, how does India and China fit into this picture?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, in a lot of different ways. First, let me just agree with George that we do need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and I hate Big Macs, so I agree with that, as well.

Here’s what’s happening with India and China. Both countries have made commitments which are kind of emblematic of the whole agreement, in that both countries are not yet even committing to a specific date at which their emissions will start to decline, nor at what level those emissions will start to decline. And yet both countries have made dramatic, world-changing commitments to install clean energy. So, what’s happening in India, in China, the United States and the European Union is two things are happening at once: We are scaling up the amount of clean energy coming online, and yet we are not yet saying no, in sufficient quantities, to fossil fuels in the ground. Look at the United States. We won on Keystone. Keystone won’t be built. We’re winning in the Arctic. We have a chance at preventing any drilling from happening in the American Arctic. We’re making good progress now at beginning to build a movement to lock away resources that are based on public lands. We don’t need to extract more oil, coal and natural gas from new leases on public lands. And yet, we do not yet have a sufficient momentum to keep more fossil fuels in the ground.

So, I agree with George that what is happening right now is far deficient. We’re not even close to doing what needs to be done. I’ll also assert that we’ve got more momentum and more power politically, with better market forces, than we’ve ever had. And so now is an opportunity to secure the wins that we’ve had and to have a clear eye, an unflinching, realistic eye, about what still needs to be done, and then go get to work to make sure that we’re not expanding our use of fossil fuels, but increasingly we’re turning away and towards a society that is powered by clean energy.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue, George Monbiot, of the subsidized fossil fuel industry to the tune of billions of dollars in the United States, in the West and around the world, far, far outstripping any kind of support for renewables? Does the Paris Agreement address this?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, by no means sufficiently. And one of the extraordinary things is, we are constantly told, “We can’t afford to switch to renewables,” yet somehow we can afford to spend far more money than governments spend on renewables on subsidizing fossil fuels. It’s a grotesque situation and an outrageous injustice. It’s an injustice in that current taxpayers are being fleeced in order to give this money to the oil industry, the gas industry, the coal industry—perhaps the least-deserving causes you can imagine worldwide. You know, we talk about, “Oh, we’re giving too much foreign aid to starving people.” Well, why are we giving all this money to the richest companies in the world? It’s just insanity.

But at the same time as that, we’re saying, “We can’t afford these transitions.” And, of course, the reality is, we can’t afford not to make the transitions. We can’t afford not to get out of fossil fuels, not to, basically, shut down fossil fuel industries, rather than giving them buckets of money out of the public treasury. And until we sort that out and have a global moratorium on these subsidies and tax breaks and royalty breaks and everything else that they receive, well, we’re going to continue committing to that injustice against today’s taxpayers, against the victims of climate change, against future generations.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does Sierra Club, Michael Brune, go from here, in these last 30 seconds?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, let me just say, what we have to fight for right now is very timely, in that the U.S. budget is being negotiated. And these tax cuts and these tax breaks that George is talking about are what’s on the table. Will the U.S. continue, extend its dependence on fossil fuels and allow for the tax breaks enjoyed by the oil industry to continue, or will we let the tax investments for solar and wind actually expire? This is a fight that’s being held in Congress today, this morning, and it’s up to the president to make sure that we’re signing a budget that actually is in accord with the climate goals that he just signed onto over the weekend.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Sierra Club.


AMY GOODMAN: His book, Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal. And thanks so much to George Monbiot, British journalist and author, columnist with The Guardian, author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. And we’ll link to your piece in The Guardian, “Grand promises of Paris climate deal undermined by squalid retrenchments.”

When we come back from our early break, we go to the streets of Paris this weekend. Between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, thousands said the Paris Agreement is not good enough. Stay with us.

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